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DHS Warns That COVID is Provoking Extremist Violence

DHS has warned that the exploitation of the COVID-19 pandemic by domestic violent extremists (DVEs) for the purpose of committing hate crimes, acts of violence, or inciting others to commit violence.a Among the broad category of DVEs, racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs), militia extremists, and others have called for intentionally spreading the virus or retaliating against perceived government overreach in response to the pandemic. Here are the details…

Domestic Violent Extremist Attacks and Plotting during COVID-19 Pandemic

In two incidents since March, DVEs have sought to conduct, or conducted attacks citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a factor in the timing or motivation of their attacks. A DVE in California cited online conspiracy theories and the potential for the imposition of martial law to justify his attack, while an RMVE in Missouri cited the potential increased media reaction as motivation for plotting an attack on a medical center.

  • On 31 March, a DVE, who was a train engineer, allegedly attempted to damage a naval hospital ship docked in the Port of Los Angeles by purposely derailing a train he was operating. According to statements he made to law enforcement after the derailment, the DVE shared conspiracy theories about the true purpose of the ship, discussed its purpose as “segregating us” and stated, “you only get this chance once… the whole world is watching.”
  • In March, an RMVE, who has since been disrupted, discussed an attack plan targeting a medical center in Missouri on 24 March using a time-delayed vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). The subject cited the likely increased impact and media attention on the health sector during the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to accelerate the timing and selection of a healthcare facility.

Exploitation of COVID-19 Pandemic to Encourage Future Attacks and Hate Crimes by RMVEs

Some RMVEs who advocate for the superiority of the white race seek to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to bolster their narratives and encourage attacks and hate crimes against minorities, including Jewish and Asian Americans.d Some RMVEs claim government responses to the pandemic could crash the global economy, hasten societal collapse, and lead to a race war. These claims dovetail with a version of accelerationist beliefs some RMVEs hold and could appeal to some individuals in the West experiencing economic hardship, job loss, political frustration, and social isolation, inciting them to commit acts of violence.

  • RMVEs have sought to incite others to conduct attacks against perceived enemies by calling for others to intentionally infect individuals at locations, such as law enforcement field offices, government buildings, public transportation, retail outlets, and other locations frequented by minority populations.

Potential Violent DVE Reactions Influenced by Online Conspiracy Theories Regarding COVID-19 Pandemic

Some DVEs are probably being influenced by online conspiracy theories describing the pandemic as a government-perpetrated hoax. Historically, some DVEs have reacted violently to misinformation they viewed as authentic. Militia extremists particularly have an enduring concern about government overreach they believe could culminate in government-led mass firearm confiscations or the imposition of martial law. Additionally, conspiratorial narratives assigning blame for the pandemic to a Jewish conspiracy or China heightens the risk of retaliatory violence against Jewish Americans and Asian Americans. Other DVEs have shared statements that law enforcement will be unable to prevent DVE attacks on minorities or quell riots. Still other DVEs have called for like-minded individuals to prepare to use illegal force or violence to combat anticipated law enforcement abuses or prevent reproductive healthcare providers from operating during the pandemic.

  • Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have claimed Jews and Israel are responsible for manufacturing and spreading the virus to expand their alleged control of Western societies and benefit from the ongoing economic volatility. Some DVEs have also blamed China and individuals of Asian descent for the pandemic, and these accusations—in addition to recent incidents of COVID-19-related assaults on Asian Americans—highlight an existing threat of violence towards Asian individuals or potentially Asian-operated businesses.
  • Some social media users, including individuals prominent in the militia extremism movement, shared their concerns about possible US Government responses to the pandemic by calling for the disregarding of stay-at-home orders, and espousing conspiracy theories about a future government declaration of martial law and gun confiscation. Some militia extremists have discussed preparing their militias for a response, potentially using violence in retaliation against the perceived impending gun confiscations. Some past DVEs have been driven to commit criminal acts by a perceived impending declaration of martial law including three militia extremists, who in August 2015 were convicted of federal conspiracy and firearms violations after collecting materials commonly used to manufacture explosive devices.

Outlook

As the number of Americans affected by the COVID-19 pandemic grows, the threat posed by DVEs and hate crime actors towards minorities and other targets of their violence will likely increase. The FBI, DHS, and NCTC assess that DVEs will likely continue to seek to exploit the pandemic by using violence themselves or encouraging others on social media and messaging applications to use violence. Additionally, hate crimes towards Asian Americans and those of Asian descent will likely increase over the next two to three months causing an increase in reported hate crime incidents based on racial or ethnic biases. While some stay-at-home orders limit the mobility of some DVEs and mitigates some of the risk of mass attack violence in public places, racial and/or religious minorities and minority-operated businesses that remain open are likely at particular risk. Additionally, law enforcement personnel enforcing stay-at-home orders or interacting with citizens, as well as soft targets such as grocery stores, hospitals, and other essential businesses, will probably remain potential targets for DVEs during the course of the pandemic.

Additional Reading:

DHS Issues Three Warnings on Terrorist, Extremists, and Cyber Threats Relating to COVID-19

OODA Analyst

OODA Analyst

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